Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Susan Settlemyre Williams

Interview by Kimberly L. Becker

Curious are the ways
holiness is achieved

In Ashes in Midair, poet Susan Settlemyre Williams explores the search for meaning in the midst of loss. Winner of the 4th Many Mountains Moving Press Poetry Book Prize selected by Yusef Komunyakaa, Ashes in Midair follows Williams's previous chapbook, Possession. Poems from Possession comprise a section of the full-length book and it is in those poems that the reader meets a woman possessed by madness. Williams is possessed by a gift for language that Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson praises for its ability to render "darkly beautiful translations of human experience."

A retired lawyer, Williams lives in Richmond where she serves as book review editor and associate literary editor of Blackbird.


KB     Your work has been called spiritual and there certainly is a "pattern of seeking" evident in the poems. Your poems do not advocate one answer to this searching, but instead reference approaches as disparate as the Bible, hoodoo, Tarot and Kabala. In the poem "Lost" you write of a place "where seeker and pattern are only / their own distant call and answer / and then broken like stones." Is the poet's allegiance to questioning or answering?

SSW     In my opinion, what goes on in poems should always be too complex and too interesting for complete resolution. When I was in law school, my trial practice professor stressed that you should never ask a witness a question to which you don't know the answer. Just the reverse is true in poetry. If you have an answer up your sleeve, the poem is likely to seem over-determined, too tidy.

KB     You employ a fair amount of apophasis in your work. For example, in "Slug Story" you write, "I haven't told you yet... nor have I told you..." and then you proceed to tell us disgusting and difficult-to-read details! Did you hone that kind of rhetorical skill in your work as an attorney? Is there any other overlap? I'm guessing the meticulous attention to detail carries over more than the money!

SSW     I was a commercial real estate lawyer, a negotiator, so I probably had less experience with rhetorical niceties than litigators do. On the other hand, the process that law school professors call "learning to think like a lawyer" came rather easily to me. Many of my classmates resented what they saw as force-fed cynicism, but I've always been comfortable with shades of gray, so a device like apophasis seemed applicable in many ways. Whether in poetry or the courtroom, it's more effective to cast doubt on something than to deny it outright. (Think of Antony, a lawyer like most Roman politicians, asserting, "Brutus is an honorable man; / So are they all, all honorable men." Yeah, right.)

Legal practice, like poetry, is about language—and that language is not nearly as dreadful as some lay people insist. It's simply different, devised for different purposes. (Of course, there are some lawyers who are dreadful writers, full of "hereinabove-mentioneds" and "aforesaids.") In general, though, legal writing is left-brained, designed to pin down and define relationships and obligations, and poetry, while not exclusively right-brained, makes intuitive connections. The carryover between the two is mostly in awareness of language. As for the money, in fourteen years of writing poetry since I took early retirement from law practice, I've earned about $1,500—but at least I've had the leisure to enjoy spending it.

KB     Ashes in Midair deals with loss. One of my favorite poems is "Lighter," in which you recall "one of many bright / things I've had and can't remember when they left / my possession." Does a poet write in order to redeem loss?

SSW     I don't know if loss is truly redeemable, but it becomes at least a bit more bearable when it gets onto the page. The difficulty is in trying to get beyond personal therapy or catharsis (useful as that is). Going further than that seems to call for detachment, which seldom comes in the moment of loss. Maybe working toward that detachment is a form of redemption.

KB     Flannery O'Connor called the South Christ-haunted in "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South" a lecture at Georgetown University in1963. I can see that some of your poems are haunted by the South. Do you consider yourself to be a regional writer?

SSW     Funny thing about that. This past spring I was scheduled to be part of a panel on women's poetry at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Almost all the participants came from Virginia and surrounding states, and one of the questions we were asked to be prepared to answer was, "Do you consider yourself a Southern poet?" When I saw the question a week or so before the panel, my kneejerk response was, "No, I'm not a Southern poet." (And this in spite of the fact that I've lived in the South my entire life!) But, when Southern poetry comes to my mind, I think of a strong sense of place, usually rural place, the feeling I get from poets like Ellen Bryant Voigt and Claudia Emerson, whom I admire enormously while regretting that I can't write like they do. Unless I'm channeling a character like my obsessive outsider artist in "Kathryn: A Calling," I can't even manage the vernacular.

Then, a few days later, I had an email from my editor, in Philadelphia. He had been working with some interns who'd been assigned to read my book, and he asked if I'd answer some of their questions. To my surprise, all the questions were along the lines of "Where did you get your religious training?" I'm a pretty agnostic Unitarian-Universalist, so the religious overtones didn't come out of a particular faith (although the interns seemed to believe I was Catholic). But I was brought up Presbyterian in the small-town South of fifty years ago, and I couldn't escape knowing a lot about the Bible. My mother read me Bible stories along with Greek myths and fairy tales. In those days, before the Supreme Court ruled on prayer in the public schools, we learned Bible verses in grade school, and everyone went to Sunday school.

Suddenly, the questions of Southernness and religion converged and made me change my response to the question for the W&L panel. Yes, I am a Southern writer, in a Christ-haunted landscape.

KB     To invoke another Southern writer, Eudora Welty wrote of the "eye of the story." Do you have an "eye" to each poem around which the work develops and composes itself?

SSW     I think what I have is a phrase that floats into my head like a half-remembered song. If I'm lucky, the phrase stays around long enough to become the germ of a poem. The idea of an eye seems far more intentional than my process actually is—I often don't know what the poem is about until it's gone through several drafts and a bit of fermentation.

KB     You are an editor (for the journal Blackbird) as well as a poet. How does one role influence the other?

SSW     Being an editor—reading lots of poetry by other people, getting exposure to a wide range of styles and subjects, and trying to see what works and what doesn't—is a great education for a poet. You see how other poets get it right and get it wrong. You find out that your own poems aren't as unique as you thought.

I can't tell you how many times I've read submissions on subjects I've written about—I don't mean the usual generic subjects like love and death, but very specific things. We recently accepted a poem about floaters in the eye, for instance, and I have a poem about that. Then I have to ask myself: Is my poem sufficiently different from this one that it doesn't invite comparisons? What did the poet do better than I did?

Being a poet makes me both a bit tougher and a bit more generous as an editor too. I don't have much sympathy with poems that settle for facile resolutions, on the one hand; but, on the other, I try to be mindful of how risky it feels for a poet to expose herself by the process of submission, and how scary the faceless editor seems. (Just think of the word: submission! How servile you feel.)

KB     So what part does ego play in the writing and submitting of your own work to other editors? Seeing as many submissions as you do, some of which are on the same subject as your own poems, do you feel extra pressure to be unique in your own work? Are you in competition with other poets or with yourself?

SSW     Reading submissions and taking part in decisions to publish them certainly makes me a tougher critic of my own work. If perfectionism is competing with oneself (an argument one could certainly make), then I do compete in that way. But, as for competing with other poets, it is pointless and sometimes mean-spirited. Poetry isn't a zero-sum game, although I know a few poets who see it that way. You're not damaged because someone else writes a brilliant poem—you and every other lover of poetry is enriched.

KB     Your poems sing, but they sting, as well. Some of them are difficult to read, such as "Slug Story." Some are very painful emotionally, such as "Dementia Diary." Some evoke physical pain, as in "Boy Pursued." Scholar Abraham Heschel described a prophet as someone who hears an octave too high. In "Dementia Diary" you refer to your mother being "keyed to such a pitch." In "Kathryn: A Calling" we read of a woman struggling to endure the "drumming" in her head and the voices of angels. Is it part of the poet's vocation to articulate the difficult so that others might hear?

SSW     I don't know if it's every poet's vocation, but I admit I'm drawn to those characters Sherwood Anderson called "grotesques," people whose world view is skewed or narrowed to a single obsession. Getting into the heads of such people is a way of finding out about myself, I think, recognizing that the elements of madness are in me as well as in them. I didn't enjoy writing about my mother's Alzheimer's, but it was a way of facing up to that possibility in myself.

KB     Ashes in Midair is inhabited by women. Many poems feature women as narrators or central characters and several poems are dedicated to women who have died. Which women have most inspired you as a poet—either literary or literal mothers?

SSW     It was almost a surprise to me to realize how many women do inhabit the book. But, despite several male poets and other men who have influenced me a lot, women probably have more to do with my being a poet. While my father gave me a sense of adventure, for instance, my mother showed me where to find the narratives that satisfied it. She was a kindergarten teacher with an inspired understanding of children's literature. She was reading to me long before I could talk and introduced me to the myths and stories that still resonate most with me. She also knew how to read poetry out loud, a rarer gift than you might expect.

My friend Rebecca, for whom the title poem was written, inspired by example. At the age of fifty-something, she gave up a steady job to move across the country, quite literally to follow her dreams. She wanted to write a romance novel, adopt one more child (she had four grown children already, three of them adopted), live in an adobe house, and find true love. In the very few years before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she managed all of those. I would never have had the courage to apply to an MFA program at the age of fifty-five without Rebecca's fearless example.

There are plenty of women poets I count as influences, especially Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Glück, but my friend Patty Paine is the poet who keeps me going. She's a wonderful writer and a wonderful, thoughtful and honest critic. We are each other's "first reader," a relationship of great trust that continues even though she now lives and teaches in the Middle East.

KB     I'm interested in the genesis for certain poems. In the title poem, "Albuquerque, Your Ashes in Midair" you describe transporting a portion of a friend's ashes: "Light as sky in my palm, / in a blue ice cream carton, I hold the gray / soft feathers of your ash." The "blue ice cream carton": was this an actual detail that helped chafe the poem into existence?

SSW     I took some liberties with what actually happened, but the core of the experience is true, both in "Albuquerque" and in "Tarocchi Appropriati." Because of weather conditions in Albuquerque, we weren't allowed to scatter Rebecca's ashes as planned after her memorial service. But there was a blue ice cream carton, one of the stranger details of a very unsettling experience. One of Rebecca's grown daughters lived in Richmond (where I had first known Rebecca); she had taken a lot of time off from work to nurse her mother during her illness and couldn't afford to return for the memorial service, so I had promised to bring some of the ashes back with me so she and her siblings on the East Coast could have a private ceremony. Another daughter, who lived in Albuquerque, had packed the ashes in that ice cream carton for me to carry onto the plane. After I took the carton, I drove out into the desert and seriously thought about scattering a small handful, but I felt that I'd be cheating the children if I did that, so the detail in the poem was a vicarious act of memorializing.

KB     In "Ars Poetica: Philomel" we read that "whatever the woman is feeling, she doesn't allow / her fingers to falter at the knots. Thread by thread, / she's working the frayed data into textile—" Your book is beautifully structured, both as individual poems and overall form. Did you discover patterns among your poems as you compiled the manuscript?

SSW     Putting together the manuscript was a process of discovering patterns. In the earliest version, Ashes in Midair was my MFA thesis and, essentially, analogous to a "greatest hits" album—an assortment of poems that had been fairly well-received in grad school but that had no real cohesiveness. After a few months, I started interrogating every poem to see how it worked with the manuscript as a whole. If it seemed to be going off at too much of a tangent, I dropped it. On the other hand, as I began to recognize the patterns, I also started writing poems that picked up on my themes and images.

KB     "Learning Again to Call the Sun" describes training an injured arm to "increments of pain." Is writing a painful or pleasurable experience for you?

SSW     Both. I get a real high when a poem starts to coalesce, a lot of frustration and dismay when it falls apart or—worse—when I just draw a blank. Lately, it's been more pain than pleasure, I'm afraid.

KB     In "Tarocchi Appropriati" you have a section called "Cards XVI and XX, September 11, 2001." Did you have to give yourself "permission" to write about 9/11 and "the broadcast scenes / of crumple and ash, bone-dust blackening it all"? Is poetry necessary for healing, both as a person and as a nation?

SSW     I resisted writing about 9/11 for a long time. I wasn't there, I didn't have anything to say about it that hadn't been said better by better poets. Eventually and almost against my will, it did show up in my long poem about the tarot. Because that poem was otherwise about the deaths of three good friends, it seemed permissible to address the larger catastrophe which happened at about the same time, although writing about it as an outsider still makes me uneasy. I needed that section of the poem for structural purposes too: The following section is about flying to New Mexico for my friend's memorial service a few months afterwards, when airline restrictions were weirdly draconian.

I don't know if poetry is necessary for healing (pace, William Carlos Williams). It helps the poet. Maybe sometimes it helps the reader. I fear that the nation is largely unaware of poetry, for better or worse. I do think it's a mistake to write a poem with the idea that it will heal.

KB     Thank you for your time, Susan. In closing, I'd like to leave the reader with an image. Without naming it, describe if you would the lost material possession you would most like to recover if you could.

SSW     Kim, that's some question! It prompted a catalog of the missing (old photos, the love beads my friends gave me for Christmas in 1968, my mother's memories). It sent me (no surprise) to Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," with its own catalog of objects sacrificed in pursuit of "the art of losing." Like Bishop, I know it's the human loss that "may look like (Write it!) like disaster." But you asked about a lost material possession. There are two I long for, both of the same class of objects, both actually relics of my mother's childhood which became part of mine. They are frayed and discolored, quite literally falling apart even when I was six years old. Their corners are worn away, and tape figures in their temporary survival. A child could hold them, carefully. And a child who approached them, or was led to them, in the right spirit would have her eyes opened to new worlds. (Not much of a riddle, is it?)


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